Amini Fonua, a New Zealand-born swimmer and Olympian, attends Texas A&M University, which the Princeton Review ranked as the most conservative university and 7th-most unfriendly LGBT campus in America.
Fonua, 23, represented Tonga, his father’s homeland, at the 2012 Olympics and also served as the tiny island-nation’s flag-bearer. He became the first Tongan swimmer to win an international medal after snatching gold in the 50-meter breaststroke at the 2010 Oceania Swimming Championships and last year, Fonua was the Big 12 champion in the 100-meter breaststroke.
However, as “perhaps the only openly gay male athlete at A&M”, Fonua — the school’s former swim team captain — is quick to defend his school against accusations of homophobia, particularly in light of a recent Student Senate bill that would’ve allow students to “opt-out” of funding an LGBT center on campus.
The bill was eventually vetoed by the Student Body President, but Fonua argues that it was not indicative of the school as a whole. “I’m kind of sick of having to try to defend my school to other people, because I think it’s a very small minority,” Fonua told his school newspaper, The Battalion. “Homophobia is at every university, it’s not just A&M. It’s everywhere. It might be a little more prevalent here, but I do think that people will sensationalize how something really is.”
Fonua has been out since his first days on campus, an experience he described in an editorial for Swim Swam:
A conversation with my Team Captain from my freshman year at Texas A&M personify these principles. Seeing no reason to hide, I was open about who I was even as a freshman. A Captain took me aside to speak. He said that if anybody marginalized me because of who I was, he wanted to know about it immediately. Hate is not an Aggie value, and if anything remotely hateful was happening, he promised to end it…There are many successful gay people in our sport. Our sport has thrived because of the open minds that people have.
While he was honored to compete in the Olympics, Fonua regards receiving the Aggie Heart — “given to a teammate who puts the team’s needs above their own and exemplifies leadership and has all the qualities of what it means to be an Aggie” — as his most proud accomplishment. “And to get that as a gay athlete is pretty huge, especially because it’s peer-voted,” he added.
Fonua is currently finishing up his major in senior telecommunications and media studies at A&M, but he has no plans to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero. Rather, he’s made the difficult decision to take a break from swimming.“It’s a huge part of my identity, and that’s what I think a lot of people don’t understand — that when you swim, and you stop for a period of time, you sort of lose a big part and a big piece of who you are,” Fonua said.
“It isn’t everything that I am, but it certainly is a big part of who I am. Much like being gay. Part of who I am, but not everything that I am.”
Since publicly coming out, Fonua continues to garner support, not only from his fellow Aggies, but the world wide webs as well:
Thank you for all your support! I really appreciate all the kind words & lovely tweets. Don’t let anything get in the way of your dreams.
— Amini Fonua (@aminifonua) May 7, 2013